How to catch a ghost
Thabo Bester was arrested in Tanzania on 7th April 2023, ending the convicted rapist and murderer’s year as a free man. We spoke to the reporters who uncovered the most implausible prison escape story South Africa has ever heard
7th April 2023 (Taken from: #51)
The arrest of Thabo Bester in Tanzania on 7th April 2023 was an extraordinary moment, not least because he had been declared dead a year earlier. In May 2022 the notorious ‘Facebook rapist’, who had targeted women through the social media platform before attacking them at knifepoint, had been found burnt to death in cell 35 of Mangaung Correctional Centre, a maximum-security prison in Bloemfontein. The authorities initially concluded Bester had set himself on fire, in an apparent suicide, so news of his resurrection understandably caused a sensation in his native South Africa.
Thabo Bester first came to national attention in 2012 when he was found guilty of the rape and murder of his then-girlfriend, model Nomfundo Tyhulu. He had previously been found guilty of raping two other women he’d approached via Facebook. The South African press reported his death in a prison fire as fact. And he might have remained officially dead for a lot longer had journalists Marecia Damons and Daniel Steyn from the news website GroundUp not spent six months investigating the unusual circumstances around his apparent demise.
“In October 2022 my editor Nathan Geffen invited me to a meeting that was completely confidential – we had to meet away from the newsroom in a separate office given the nature of what he was about to share with me,” says Damons, a 26-year-old journalist who cut her teeth reporting on South Africa’s prisons. Geffen told his reporter that he had received a tip-off about the ‘Facebook rapist’. “He said there were rumours that he had faked his death and escaped,” she says.
The source of the tip-off was a former justice in South Africa’s highest court. Edwin Cameron now heads prison watchdog the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services, and not long after the charred remains were found in Bester’s cell, his inspectors began noticing unusual details – for one, the initial autopsy report estimated that the body of the deceased was 25cm shorter than Bester. By October 2022, Cameron had seen enough to believe that Bester was still alive, and the police told him in a meeting that they had reached the same conclusion. Yet nothing was being done to investigate the likelihood of a convicted killer on the loose. Frustrated, the judge turned leaker.
I needed to remember this man was a murderer… safety was an issue”
This was not a typical story for GroundUp, a nonprofit with limited resources that focuses on community journalism. But Cameron was a board member – an unpaid position with no editorial influence – and he put his faith in its journalists. He was cautious, giving the reporters just enough to lead them in the right direction, and limiting his leaks to publicly available information. “Cameron had tried his best to get the police and the Department of Correctional Services… to act; to admit that Bester was still alive, and to apprehend him,” says reporter Daniel Steyn, who joined Damons on the investigation at the start of this year. It was left to the two 26-year-old journalists to do what the authorities seemed reluctant to – track down Bester.
In her initial story for GroundUp in November 2022, Damons reported that there were “major rumours floating” around the circumstances of Bester’s demise along with “talk of a cover-up”. However, even with Cameron’s prompts, she thought it all sounded too crazy to be true. She ended her piece by saying that the suggestions that he had faked his death in prison were far-fetched and that it was “most likely Bester’s body that was found in his cell. He most likely died in the fire.”
After that first report came out GroundUp got a few tip-offs from the public. As more and more evidence came in, Damons began to believe that Thabo Bester might indeed still be alive. The relatively small GroundUp team was now hunting a notorious killer on the loose. This was thrilling, if rather daunting. “From watching a lot of television crime shows I was excited to chase this story, and at times it didn’t feel real to me,” says Damons. “But I needed to remember who this man was – a rapist, a murderer… I wasn’t terrified for my life [but] safety was a major issue. People knew what I looked and sounded like, so I had to be a bit more careful with my movements.”
Damons and Steyn learned that the prison’s internal CCTV had been tampered with at the time of the fire. Not all of the security cameras had been disabled, however, and the reporters uncovered footage showing two people hastily exiting the prison compound in the early hours of the morning of the blaze. The journalists also obtained court documents showing that three days after the fire a woman had collected the burnt body found in the cell from the state morgue claiming to be Bester’s wife (she was in fact married to someone else), and took it to a mortuary. After the body was confiscated from her by police for further investigation, she went to court to file a petition to have it returned.
This woman was Dr Nandipha Magudumana, and when Bester was arrested in April 2023 by the Tanzanian police she was sitting by his side in a black SUV. The 33-year-old mother of two was well known even before her association with a notorious criminal. “She was a black aesthetics [cosmetic surgery] doctor, which isn’t very common in South Africa,” says Damons, who adds that Magudumana was also a “mentor, a social media influencer, and kind of a motivational speaker”.
The reporters now had photos of Bester shopping with his girlfriend almost two months after he had been reported dead”
Magudumana’s court petition backfired. Through the legal documents that came out of this appeal – which eventually landed on the reporters’ desks – it was revealed that Bester’s biological mother wasn’t a DNA match for the burnt body. Whoever was found in the cell wasn’t Bester. The reporters also learned that an autopsy report on the charred corpse had indicated that the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head, not fire. Discovering the details of the autopsy report was a game-changer for the journalists – this wasn’t suicide but a murder. And the police would have known this fact since the start.
The journalists put all their evidence into a report published on GroundUp on 15th March 2023. The headline was: “Did the Facebook rapist die in his cell? Or did he escape from prison?” The second possibility seemed even more likely when they saw pictures of him at the supermarket. “After we published the [15th March] article it went viral and ‘Dr Nandi’, Nandipha’s nickname, was trending on Twitter,” says Steyn. “I arrived early at the office the next day and we’d had a phone call from someone who had taken some photos in [Johannesburg shopping centre] Sandton City in June 2022. They said they took the photos of Nandipha Magudumana because their friend was a fan and they were surprised to see her with a man who wasn’t her husband. They didn’t know at the time that the man was Thabo Bester.”
The reporters now had photos of Bester shopping with his girlfriend almost two months after he had been reported dead. “We could see from the metadata where and when the photos were taken, but we didn’t have any fancy facial recognition software or anything like that,” remembers Steyn. “It was difficult because he looked skinnier than the last time public photos of him surfaced [during his 2012 trial]; he was wearing dark shades and his beard had grown out… We looked very carefully at his brow line, his nose and his ears, and we asked several other people in the office to take a look.” Their editor was nervous about publishing but they decided to push the button on a cautiously-worded article – a man “resembling” Thabo Bester had been spotted.
“We had to get these stories out quickly because there are other news outlets that are better resourced than us,” recalls Damons, who says the reporters got “very little sleep” during this period. If they weren’t writing articles they were on the phone to sources, trying to get more information and double-checking claims. “Every time we finished one article we got a tonne of new information and we had to decide, ‘OK, do we have to write another article now?’”
“Bester going shopping was so brazen,” Steyn adds. “Everything about this story is so brazen. It fuelled the disbelief of the authorities when they first got the evidence. Judge Cameron said in parliament [at an inquiry after Bester’s arrest] that one of the reasons the investigations took so long was because it was so unbelievable that even after seeing the evidence people were having trouble believing what they were seeing.”
It turns out that grocery shopping while nominally deceased was just the tip of Bester’s iceberg of shameless behaviour. Alongside their reporting on his rumoured prison escape, Damons and Steyn were investigating another tip-off that appeared almost as improbable – that Thabo Bester had run a media empire from his cell. “At one stage in our investigation Marecia suggested we do a search of our email inboxes for anything relating to Bester,” says Steyn, “and we found an email that was sent to GroundUp in 2020 from a former employee of a company called 21st Century Media. She was making these allegations that a murderer and rapist was running the company from inside prison. At the time we didn’t really have the resources to investigate it and, I mean, it just seemed so far-fetched.”
They got in touch with the woman and another startling set of images landed in their inboxes. They depicted Bester calling in to the glitzy 2018 launch event of his new media company, which claimed to be a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox, via video conference, wearing a shirt and tie. It seemed unlikely that his audience knew he was doing so from prison.
Bester, it turned out, had created an alias, ‘Tom Motsepe’, a media executive based in New York and apparently a relative of Patrice Motsepe, South Africa’s first black billionaire and a household name in the country. He had created various online profiles, some of which saw Bester’s head photoshopped onto the bodies of well-known figures, including Black Panther actor Michael B Jordan. He had also created a personal website with a bio claiming that ‘Tom Motsepe’ owned 33.5 percent of US entertainment conglomerate Viacom. “Bester started approaching people in the South African media, including quite high-profile professionals from communications consultants to TV producers, promising the world in terms of opportunities to grow their brands at this new South African branch of 21st Century Fox,” says Steyn.
Edited highlights of 21st Century Media’s launch event can be found on YouTube. In one scene the celebrity-studded audience serenades ‘Tom’, ostensibly joining them from New York, with a round of ‘Happy Birthday’. The date of the 2018 conference, 13th June, is Bester’s real birthday. For a sham company run from a prison, the setup was impressive – the firm had beautiful new studios in the upmarket Johannesburg district of Sandton, more than 30 employees, and it held auditions with actors for several TV shows that were never made. Bester was said to be extremely hands-on in the day-to-day running of the firm.
Later in 2018, 21st Century Media arranged the inaugural Women in Media conference, which promised in its advertising that Hollywood actors Halle Berry and Taraji P Henson would be appearing on stage at the Sandton Convention Centre, along with a wealth of female South African celebrities. After both American actors denied knowing anything about the conference, 21st Century Media publicly threatened to sue them. The event never went ahead. The former director of 21st Century Media, Phumudzo Thenga, now claims that she was scammed by Bester and Magudumana, who owned a bank account to which Thenga sent large amounts of money.
“What interested us most about the story was how Bester was able to access the clothes, the internet, the computer, the private space for video conferencing – and be very hands-on in the running of a company – in a maximum-security prison?” says Steyn. “What does it say about how this prison is being run at a systemic level? How had he accrued enough power within the prison to pay his way towards gaining these privileges?”
On 25th March 2023, the day after GroundUp’s ‘Tom Motsepe’ report, the South African authorities finally admitted that Thabo Bester was alive. The fallout from the announcement was instant. G4S lost its contract to operate Mangaung Correctional Centre; the government said that the British company had lost control of the prison and that Bester’s escape would not have been possible without the cooperation of G4S staff. The South African parliament ordered a hearing on the scandal, but it was postponed when G4S officials refused to appear. The firm said in a statement that Mangaung Correctional Centre had a “strong track record” and that G4S would stick to plans announced in 2019 to “discontinue all investment in correctional services in South Africa.” Meanwhile, Bester and Magudumana fled their rented mansion in Sandton for a Tanzanian border town 3,500km away.
A watch worth 1.5 million rand (£62,000) was later found on Bester’s bedside table in the abandoned house in Sandton. Damons and Steyn don’t know how much money, if any, the couple made from their media business scam in 2018, but they did have considerable success after Bester broke out of jail with a fake construction company. Arum Properties received millions of rand from clients for luxury off-plan mansions. The properties, of course, were never going to be built, and victims later said that they had no idea that when they met the firm’s salesperson, ‘TK Nkwana’ – sometimes in broad daylight in public places – they were sitting down with an escaped killer.
There were ten days between GroundUp’s revelation that Bester was alive and the government’s confirmation. It was another two weeks before the Tanzanian police caught the fugitives, who were flown back to South Africa to enter custody. Most worryingly, almost six months passed between the police telling Edwin Cameron that they believed Bester was still alive and his capture. “It seemed as though they were dragging their feet,” says Damons. “And then after our reports [from 15th March 2023 onwards] went out they were scrambling around quite a lot [because of the] pressure from the public.”
As well as serious concerns over the inaction of the authorities, questions were also being asked about the complicity of prison staff. Various G4S employees now stand accused of accepting bribes from Bester and Magudumana to perform key roles in the escape, including disabling CCTV cameras, smuggling the replacement body into the cell and starting the fire. The scandal has reignited a national debate about South Africa’s prison system, which Steyn describes as “rotten” from top to bottom.
The family of Katlego Bereng also has questions. On 8th May 2023 the father of two small children was finally laid to rest in a ceremony in Bloemfontein. A test had matched the DNA of the charred body in Bester’s cell to that of the missing 30 year old. His father, Batho Mpholo, told News 24 that his “heart was shattered in a million pieces.”
Bereng, a soccer fanatic and supporter of Bloemfontein Celtic who wrote some of the songs fans sang during games, had simply vanished during a night out. “Katlego’s family had reported him missing in May 2022 and heard nothing from the police until [April 2023 when] they asked his mother to do a DNA test,” says Steyn. “The family has been told two conflicting stories – that he had collapsed in town and was taken to hospital. Or that he was beaten over the head and died from that, which is consistent with the postmortem report [one GroundUp report suggested that one of the G4S employees arrested for aiding Bester’s escape personally knew Katlego]. We know that he died in the ambulance on the way to hospital, where he was put in the morgue, and then Nandipha came to claim the body saying it was the brother of a friend. The body made its way to the prison where it was placed in Bester’s cell… At this stage we don’t know whether Katlego was murdered with the intention of placing him in the cell.”
As South Africans try to get their heads around the grim details, one aspect of the story in particular has become a national obsession – the motives of Dr Nandi. Why would she throw away her career and her freedom for a convicted criminal? Was she brainwashed by a charismatic conman, or was she in it for the money? Or did she, as one news network speculated, “risk it all for love”? The couple are frequently described in the press as ‘South Africa’s Bonnie and Clyde’, referring to a pair of violent criminals who were recast in popular culture as sympathetic folk heroes.
On 8th August 2023 Bester and Magudumana were reunited for the first time since their arrest when they appeared in a Bloemfontein court where they faced 16 charges relating to the prison escape. The media focused on their expensive clothes as well as the obvious affection between the couple. A total of 12 suspects have now been arrested, including Magudumana’s father, Zolile Sekeleni. Her brother, meanwhile, has leaked information on her to reporters. The dozen suspects are accused of aiding the prison escape and the body swap; in addition to any new sentence, Bester will still have to complete the one for rape and murder he began in 2012. “I think the trial will take months, maybe even years, because it’s so complicated,” says Steyn.
You read about corruption, but experiencing it first-hand was a shock”
While the details of the case were as mind-boggling to a local audience as they were to an international one, some elements of the scandal – and effectively allowing a dangerous convict to live freely for a year is quite the scandal – were less of a surprise to South Africans. “In a global north country you would have had an arrest in the ten days between our article [showing Bester had escaped] and the government confirming it – and then there was another two weeks before they were arrested,” says Steyn. He says that the reporters shared a recording of a call between the undead Bester and a client of Arum Holdings with police, as well as tip-offs from members of the public on the couple’s possible whereabouts. “They just said ‘call the hotline’”.
The duo’s reporting on Bester broke GroundUp records for website traffic and public donations, and thrust the young reporters into the national spotlight. “We’re cognisant of the fact that [this story] gave us the kind of big career break that journalists long for,” says Damons. She says that the government’s long-delayed acknowledgement that Bester was alive was “vindicating” and a huge relief – they hadn’t made a career-ending blunder. But their moment of triumph was undercut by a sense of sadness over how badly the authorities had failed the South African people. Thabo Bester didn’t have to be a criminal mastermind to pull this off. He just had to exploit the weaknesses in a broken system.
“Growing up in post-apartheid South Africa you read a lot about corruption and incompetence, but experiencing it first-hand was still a bit of a shock to me,” says Steyn. Yet as Steyn emphasises, even honest, competent officials struggled to believe that such a far-fetched story could be true. “We’ve never seen a prison escape like this before.”
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